Updated on 01/25/2017 5:46PM

Illinois Racing Board considers using surplus funds to boost Thoroughbred purses


CHICAGO – The Illinois Racing Board certified the annual recapture allocation to the state’s racetracks during a regular meeting Tuesday in Chicago. No commissioners voted against the certification, but one voted ‘present.’ About $11 million earned for purse accounts during 2016 at Illinois tracks was “recaptured” by track operators, while the Tuesday meeting, somewhat ironically, also brought about further discussion of a plan for the IRB itself to help fund purses this year.

The IRB says it has surplus funds in its budget from cost-cutting measures and, to a much greater extent, because its regulatory responsibilities diminished after a massive decline in the state’s harness racing industry. There were about 200 Standardbred cards in Illinois during as recently as 2014 but only 80 were awarded for 2017 following the shuttering of Maywood Park and Balmoral Park.

The IRB has proposed using the surplus to boost Thoroughbred purses. A first bill filed in the state legislature this winter didn’t make it out of committee, but similar legislation has been filed again during the ongoing legislative session.

The IRB has not specified how much money would be available. While generally supportive of raising purses, Illinois’s three horsemen’s organizations read into the record at the Tuesday meeting a request that the IRB, before its next meeting, “provide a written plan and draft regulations for how this money would be sent by the IRB to the racetracks, how the racetracks would direct these funds to purses, and how these redirected agency funds would be divided among the racetracks and breeds.”

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The three horsemen’s organizations earlier this month released a statement pleading with Illinois governor Bruce Rauner to stop the board from certifying 2016 recapture, but the IRB generally has long insisted that recapture is the law and that the board has no choice but to certify it. At the insistence of track operators, recapture was instituted when full-card simulcasting began in 1995 as a way to compensate track operators for the migration of handle on live racing to simulcast races. Bets on a track’s live product return a much higher margin than those made on races at other venues.

But no other racing jurisdiction in North America has a similar program, and more than $262 million has flowed from purse accounts back to the tracks since recapture became law. Until 2001, the state reimbursed purse accounts to make up for the recapture deduction, but when state finances began spiraling toward their current critical condition, those reimbursements stopped, and purses in Illinois now have fallen to levels that imperil the industry’s existence here.

Arlington’s overnight purses during 2016 averaged slightly more than  $130,000 per day; Hawthorne’s about $100,000 per day. Racetrack operators and horsemen’s group long have tried to bring slot machines to the state’s tracks, and such a measure is part of a general gambling expansion bill that was introduced during the ongoing legislative session. The bill on Tuesday moved out of a Senate committee and onto the Senate floor, but faces a long, difficult road to actually becoming law.